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Writing a Literature Review: Step 1: Getting Started

This guide is designed to help students writing a literature review for a Master's level project or paper. It can also be adapted to use with a large research project at other levels.

The Research Process

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Clarify the Assignment

Make sure you understand the nature of the assignment by reviewing these questions.

  • How long (in total pages) should your review be?
  • How many sources should be included?
  • What types of sources (books, journal articles, websites, etc.) are permitted?
  • Is there a publication date requirement (for example, published in the last 10 years)?
  • Should you summarize, synthesize, or critique the sources?
  • Should you evaluate the sources?
  • Should you provide other background, such a definitions or a historical overview?

Choosing a Topic

Once you have a full understanding of the assignment, it's time to choose a topic.  Here are a few general suggestions to get you started.  Additional suggestions are found in Step 2.

  • Choose a strong topic, and one that you are interested in.  Avoid topics that are too narrow, or have little or no published research.  Make sure you are interested enough in the topic to be able to live and breathe it for several months.
  • Brainstorm for ideas.  Write down ideas as they come to mind.  What topics have you studied in class that pique your interest?  Are there issues in your work environment that would be interesting to study?
  • Once you have a list of several potential topics, narrow it down to three, and do some exploratory searching for information on each one.
  • Know when to broaden or narrow the topic.
    • broaden: not finding enough resources
    • narrow: finding too many resources
  • If you are having trouble with the exploratory searches, make an appointment with a librarian for help.
  • You may also want to visit with your professor for help in defining a topic.


Finding Scholarly Articles

This chart will help you determine whether an article is scholarly or popular in nature.

Faculty usually require scholarly articles for a literature review project.  They may use the following terms interchangably to identify scholarly journals.

  • peer-reviewed articles
  • refereed articles or journals
  • juried articles or journals


Criteria   Scholarly Publication Trade Publication Popular Publication
Author    Researcher, expert or authority on topic Staff writer or industry specialist journalist, popular author, or may not be listed
Advertising  Very little, or highly specialized Highly specialized Significant amount, items with wide appeal
Audience   Scholar or researcher, man have advanced reading level, may have specialized vocabulary Professional in industry or field Basic reading level for a general audience
Bibliography, Works cited List of references for each article May have brief bibliographies Rarely includes a bibliography
Indexing Indexed in specialized databases such as PsycInfo, Sociological Abstracts, etc. Might be found in general or specialized databases Indexed in general databases such as General Reference Center Gold, or Reader's Guide
Level of Language Serious tone, words are specific to a discipline Serious tone, words are specific to an industry Broad and simple language, written for general readers
Purpose information about research in a specific scholarly field practical information for professionals in a specific industry Current events and general interest articles
Review policy Articles are reviewed by peers/experts/scholars in the field editorial board of journal/magazine editorial board are employees of magazine


Harvard Business Review

Behavioral Disorders

College English

Journal of Marriage and the Family

Advertising Age

American Libraries

PC World

Curriculum Review

Educational Leadership




Sports Illustrated

National Inquirer

Contact me for assistance

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Conrad Woxland
Charles J. Keffer Library | MOH 206F
Subjects: Education, Psychology